Emma Agnew: living life to the full

21:38, Feb 17 2009

Being deaf does not slow Emma Agnew down at all, her friends tell Yvonne Martin. Missing 20-year-old Emma Agnew may have been born deaf to a deaf family, but her world was no ocean of silence.

It was a whirl of sign language, texts, emails, Facebook, friends and family, watching rap music, working two jobs and enjoying her first taste of flatting life.

Modern technology allowed Agnew to move with ease between the deaf and hearing worlds, depending on whom she was conversing with.

As her confidence flourished, she ventured further into the world and became an ambassadress for sign language.

Agnew's infectious love of life, sunny nature and pretty face drew both the deaf and hearing towards her.

Even 18-year-old guys in her 2004 computer class overcame their social gaucheness and queued up to learn sign language so they could get to know her better.


One of only two girls in a class of 35 at the former Christchurch College of Computing, Agnew's deafness made her stand out even more.

So taken was Andy Savage by his sporty classmate, he endured three night classes of sign language a week - and sore facial muscles - to enter this new realm of communication.

"Meeting Emma is what started me learning sign," he says. "But as I learned more and more about the language, I enjoyed it more."

Matt Yianakis, another classmate of 2004 who learned signing because of Agnew, describes her as confident and self-assured.

"Being deaf didn't slow her down at all," he says.

Colleagues, school buddies and members of the deaf community have joined Agnew's family in the excruciating wait for news of her whereabouts.

She disappeared on Thursday of Cup Week and searches of Spencer Park and Brooklands have so far failed to find any trace of her. Police have grave fears for Agnew's safety after her car, a red Mazda Familia, was found burning in Bromley Park.

The worldwide deaf community has been reeling about losing one of its own. A controversial United States blogsite, RidorLIVE. com, is already pointing the finger: "The police in New Zealand suspected foul play. By whom? Hearing people, of course."

A Find Emma fund hastily set up by the Deaf Association to support the Agnew family this week topped $12,000 in three days.

The association was originally hoping to raise $5000, but the money poured in so quickly, the target was doubled, then doubled again to $20,000.

Among donations, Telecom has given $500 of phone time to the Agnews, who have been trying furiously to reach Emma through texts.

Email and texting are preferred modes of communication in this home.

Parents Louise and Henry Agnew are both deaf, as are their three sons.

Emma went initially to Van Asch Deaf Education Centre in Sumner, but transferred to her local Templeton Primary School and Hornby High School.

The Press upset the deaf community this week by describing Agnew as "mute". While Agnew does vocalise some sounds, she does not speak -- or "voice off" as one audiologist described it.

But that does not hinder Agnew's art of conversation via signing and texting.

Dinner at the Agnews was a strange experience for a hearing person, says Gemma Hewison, 20, Agnew's inseparable companion through intermediate and early senior school.

"It seemed so silent but they are speaking all the time through sign language," she says from Ireland where she now works.

At first, "chatting" with her new deaf mate at Templeton Primary involved scrawling on bits of paper and a flurry of faxes. Both were aged 10 or 11.

But communication lifted to a new level when Hewison learned to sign. The pair hung out together, played netball at the Templeton tennis courts and later would venture into Hornby mall by bus.

"Emma also did activities with the Deaf Society. I think that was her first point of call," she says.

While Hewison was in tears in Dublin recalling her shared childhood years, her mother, Glenys Hewison, was dropping off fresh baking to the Agnew household.

The Agnew family has been watching the Emma fund online as the pledges and messages of support have rolled in.

"We got a wide range of tremendous support from New Zealand and rest of the world," says Louise Agnew by email. "Emma has got many friends."

Emma's grandmother, Colleen Swan, is missing the frequent visits from her grand-daughter this week.

Her predominant memory of Emma? "Turning up on my doorstep with a huge grin and a pile of mending under her arm for me to fix up for her.

"Emma would always come and see me a lot and it is strange not to have seen her over the last few days. I love her so much that I want her to come home safe."

She watches music, rather than listens to it. Signmark, a Finnish deaf rap artist, is Agnew's favourite artist. She repeatedly watched a DVD she had bought of Signmark doing international sign language to rap music and even went to a concert of his in Spain in July.

"She loves it," says close friend Jenna Holland. "She had a great time over there. She would love to learn international sign language."

Agnew had travelled to the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) conference in Madrid with her aunt, Evelyn Pateman, and uncle.

On her return, Agnew excitedly showed Holland photos of all the places she had visited and signed about her amazing adventures.

The long-haul flight, the shopping, a visit to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the confusion of a strange currency, exotic foods, three days wiped out by food poisoning in Spain.

Agnew is a voracious reader and had to have the latest Harry Potter book. She is rugby-mad, played netball, and loves Home and Away.

She had been relishing a new phase of life, having moved into a Linwood house she shared with a deaf flatmate. Agnew is single and loving it, says Holland.

She enjoys going to nightclubs, dancing to the beat, and going to friend's houses. Her sign name, or nickname in the deaf community, is Smile.

Agnew had worked as the national sports administrator with the Deaf Sports Federation of New Zealand for six months. She juggled that with a part-time job as an administrator with the Deaf Society.

Both were stepping stones to a career helping deaf people strive for and achieve greater heights.

Agnew's ambition had been fired by her trip to the Madrid conference. One of her reasons for attending was to see how New Zealand's accessibility for the deaf rated internationally.

Louise Agnew says her daughter was keen to bridge the gap between the hearing and deaf.

"Helping hearing and Deaf understand each other, teach people about how to communicate with Deaf people. Yes, Emma want this," she wrote, using the capital D that deaf people use to signify their distinct culture, with its own language and mores.

Computer pals Yianakis and Savage remember the awkwardness at the start of the course, with some people avoiding Agnew out of fear.

Both struck up a conversation with Agnew using pen and paper and an enduring friendship was born.

Savage, who has poor eyesight, sat at the front of the classroom with Agnew, who sometimes had an interpreter.

She did not see deafness as a disability, says Savage.

"That's what made me get to know her," he says. "Because of my eyesight I can't drive, which is frustrating, but Emma could drive fine. When you think about it, I was probably more disadvantaged in that sense than she was. She could go wherever she wanted."

At Dimitris Greek Food, a Colombo Street lunch haunt for the trio, Agnew would point to the ingredients she wanted in her souvlaki, or write it down.

She could hear, or maybe feel, a fire alarm going off if she was standing nearby and a balloon bursting, although it did not make her jump.

Savage says Agnew was incredibly patient when he started learning sign language under her tutelage, slowly spelling out the words he did not know the sign for.

As his interest in sign grew, he attended three different nightschool classes a week to immerse himself in the culture.

On Friday nights he hung out at the Deaf Society, drinking and playing pool, and became fluent in signing.

Inspired by Agnew, both Savage and Yianakis did projects on challenges faced by those using sign as a first language.

Yianakis, who is from a Greek background, did a six-month course in sign language that year. He found doors to the deaf world opened once he understood the lingo.

Of Agnew, he says: "Emma was extremely happy and always in a good mood.

"She always seemed to be up. Very rarely was she sad or angry. Sometimes she got a bit angry when she wasn't able to get her message across, but don't we all?"

Yianakis had expected Agnew to be a guest at his 21st birthday party on Show Day. But instead of celebrating with Agnew over a drink, he learned on that day she was missing.

The next day Yianakis called around to see Agnew's parents to pass on the thoughts from the class of 2004. "They want their baby girl back," he says.

Agnew had been at a pivotal time of life, brimming with goals and dreams for the future.

She had been planning to visit the Gold Coast at Christmas to play netball at the Australian Deaf Games.

Agnew had her sights set on studying in the United States and applying for a scholarship at Washington's esteemed Gallaudet University, set up in 1864 to cater for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

Agnew had also been keen to travel to South Africa to attend the WFD Youth Congress and WFD Congress.

First though, she wanted to sell her car and that is where her path possibly crossed with someone who may have had different intentions altogether.

Agnew's last text message to her family on that Thursday could not have been more routine.

She indicated someone was coming to look at the car and sought her father's assurance that the asking price was fair.


The Press